The recent attack on the air force base at Pathankot has come as a shocker. That the terrorists were neutralized before they could cause mayhem and destroy air force assets is no consolation. Fact remains that a strategic and offensive forward airbase was brought to its knees by handful of terrorists is a shame for India.
Prime Minister Modi spoke for millions of Indians when he repeatedly expressed surprise over how a small band of terrorists could even breach the security at a strategic forward air force base.
As if this was not enough, there was legitimate angst over rushing NSG forces from far away Delhi when more than sufficient battle ready army special forces units were on hand in Pathankot itself to neutralize the terrorists.
The attack only followed a familiar and predictable pattern. Every time India has reached out to Pakistan and an overly eager Indian leader visited Pakistan, the response has been a high profile attack on India.
All this have only raised doubts over India’s operational capabilities and spawned a sense of temporary disbelief in its ability to fight terror. The questions in minds of millions of Indians seems to be - Will we ever learn? Can we ever put an end to this cross border terror?
In one sense, the Pathankot attack has forced India once again to revamp its counter terror strategy and put in place new deterrents that will keep Pakistan at bay forever.
Economically, Pakistan is a basket case and has no hope in hell for several generations to come to provide for its hungry millions. Hence it has willingly become a front client state and an errand boy for western powers and other paymasters in their global strategic designs and power projections. More importantly, it has played the convenient role of a proxy to these powers in their covert operations.
Pakistan has been immensely rewarded for this –financially, militarily and politically by these powers. Most importantly they have turned a blind eye towards its terror strategies directed at India. It had also repeatedly earned the mileage with the West to admonish India periodically and pressured it to start talks with Pakistan.
But the unfolding strategic realignment in Middle East is an important development that India should carefully exploit. The lifting of sanctions on Iran and the Russian pounding of Saudi proxies in Syria have contributed to souring US-Saudi relations. Further the fall in oil prices and continued budgetary deficits have not only enervated Saudi Arabia but have reduced its ability to fund and reward its friends and allies including Pakistan.
It is important for India to note that the US has successfully sidestepped powerful diplomatic lobbies - Israel, Saudi Arabia and internal lobbies – and has negotiated a deal with Iran. This is a very significant, yet understated, strategic development with long term consequences that will definitely impact the world including India.
While only time can tell what US intentions are, many observers feel the Iranian deal is more to usher a ‘balance’ in the Middle East region. If a long term ally Saudi Arabia can be sidelined, Pakistan may not be far down in the list, given that it has far outlived its utility in helping the US war in Afghanistan. The lesson for India is that US can jettison decades long relationships to take care of its interests. In this context, President Obama’s pointed reference to terror camps in his last State of the Union address should be a source of serious concern for Pakistan.
India should step up its diplomatic offensive to exploit this “new balance”. India surely understands these ground realities and the broader context of the very survival of Pakistan as a sovereign state in the long term. For over six decades unfavorable headwinds had tied its hands in using its superior armed forces and punishing Pakistan for its wanton acts of terror. However, there may be a window of opportunity now for India as we see a broader strategic realignment of US foreign policy in Middle east.
But India has to step up rapidly and prepare the ground for a new strategy to counter terror. India’s new policy should strengthen three key pillars - economic sanctions, covert operations and revamping internal security apparatus to make it leak proof. Needless to say the operational efficiency of its multifarious forces and agencies have to be reviewed and stepped up.
Firstly, as mentioned the aforementioned strategic realignment provides new opportunity for India to impose a de facto regional economic sanctions regime against Pakistan. There cannot be trade with a neighbor that uses terror as a state policy. Period. India must fully and forcefully exercise its options to impose economic & trade sanctions.
Economic sanctions against Pakistan have never been taken seriously by India. On the other hand, the subcontinent is witness to churlish and even puerile efforts to grant a MFN trade status to Pakistan. India must take a clear and resolute stand that it does not support the economic revival of Pakistan. It is plain naiveté to support and foster an economy that ultimately seeks to wound India.
Economic sanctions cannot be administered if the required investment and infrastructure are not in place.
India must invest money and relevant resources to build the infrastructure to administer and monitor such sanctions. Like the border fence this will be an invaluable investment and will be a forceful deterrent against terror from Pakistan.
India, which is a water starved country, has been more than generous in sharing the waters of its rivers in the Himalayas with Pakistan. Playing Cricket with India brings in huge financial benefits to Pakistan. India must stop playing cricket with Pakistan until every terror camp is closed. Water, trade, Bollywood films and cricket must be brought under the purview of economic sanctions.
The second pillar of the strategy is covert operations. There is no need to elaborate on what India should do. It has the wherewithal - resources and logistics to make this happen. The political leadership has to make this leap.
The third pillar of the policy is operational efficiency. Much has been already said about gearing up the security agencies. Post Pathankot, India is already working on this and needs no elaboration.
Pathankot attack may have been an embarrassment for India, but the evolving international political scenario provides the Modi administration a new window of opportunity to contain Pakistan. Defense Minister Parikkar has to be lauded for taking a forceful stand. Prime Minister Modi has to be given credit for building diplomatic relations with countries India can count on.
However, it is time the political leadership changed its mindset and gave the professionals the go ahead to quell the terror from across the border. In the interim, talks with Pakistan must continue, but no concessions.